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Greenpeace's clean cloud push: Hey, they've got a point

The activists' "Clean our Cloud" campaign may have stumbled, but Greenpeace raised good questions about big tech companies and their influence on local clean-power generation.

Greenpeace makes a splash in Seattle by hanging this sign off a building near Microsoft and Amazon offices.
Greenpeace makes a splash in Seattle by hanging this sign off a building near Microsoft and Amazon offices. Greenpeace

Commentary In its trademark smashmouth style, Greenpeace this week took cloud computing companies to task for using dirty energy -- and then came under fire itself over its methods and assertions.

Whatever Greenpeace's shortcomings, though, its activists have a point.

In the latest event of its "Clean our Cloud" campaign, Greenpeace activists yesterday rappelled off a building near Amazon and Microsoft offices and attached a banner which reads "Amazon, Microsoft: How Clean is Your Cloud?"

Earlier, it released three videos that poke fun at Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft by showing workers shoveling coal into a smoky fire behind scenes of consumers using the companies' Web services. Sure, the cloud looks clean, the videos suggest. But do you know where the power that makes it possible comes from?

The campaign has been marred by an angry response from Apple, which claimed that Greenpeace greatly overestimated the power usage of its latest data center and discounted its reliance on renewable energy. Amazon, too, says Greenpeace's numbers are inaccurate. The environmental watchdog group continues to defend its analysis.

Point of contention: Apple's North Carolina data center will run in part on renewable biogas-powered fuel cells and a large solar array. Apple

Narrowly speaking, this episode is about the tactics used by a single activist organization. But it raises a broader -- and valid -- question: what is the role of tech companies in making the power grid cleaner? Cloud computing providers are large and sophisticated power consumers who could arguably exert substantial influence over how electricity is generated across the U.S.

True, tech companies arguably don't have much control over electric power policy, which is largely set at the state level and, in the absence of a national energy policy, by EPA regulations on coal power plants. Almost half of all electricity in the U.S. comes from coal, which makes it very difficult to avoid in most areas.

And in terms of actually lobbying for policy, Apple, Google, Facebook, et al. would almost certainly rather expend political capital on issues that directly affect them, such as privacy or anti-piracy laws.

Still, cloud companies as a whole are doing something about their energy consumption. They're doing it for economic reasons and to be seen as socially responsible, much the way Apple has reacted to public scrutiny of its partners' factory conditions in China.

And it's certainly fair to ask if they should be doing more of it.

Fair shake?
Cloud computing sucks up huge amounts of power. Greenpeace estimates that some individual data centers consume as much electricity as 180,000 homes. The overall number for the data center industry, estimated at about two percent of all energy use, continues to expand as more mobile devices get online.

Black balloons=dirty air from coal-powered energy in Greenpeace campaign in Seattle. Greenpeace

As such, data centers can and should be efficient. Leading companies -- Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc. -- have done a lot of innovation over the past few years and spent lots of money to design very efficient data centers, some of which don't even use air conditioning. Not only does this save on operational costs, it makes siting easier by negating the need to find locations with huge honking power supplies.

Renewable energy, which was the focus of this week's Greenpeace report, can also play a bigger role, although the path here is less clear cut. Apple's Maiden, N.C., data center will be powered partly by a giant 20-megawatt solar array and nearly five megawatts of biogas-powered fuel cells. Google has purchased 200 megawatts worth of wind power from local utility grids as a way to lower the carbon footprint from its operations.

These activities are the exception, though, and cloud companies have no real choice but to balance economic and practical considerations (solar arrays, for example, take up a lot of space) with other advantages, such as predictable power costs and PR points for advancing clean energy.

Greenpeace suffered most publicly by giving Apple a low ranking compared to other cloud providers. It estimated that Apple's North Carolina site would consume 100 megawatts of power, although Apple said the number is more like 20 megawatts. "We believe this industry-leading project will make Maiden the greenest data center ever built, and it will be joined next year by our new facility in Oregon running on 100 percent renewable energy," an Apple representative said.

Greenpeace's rankings also greatly favor companies which disclose information on energy usage. Apple and Amazon scored a D and an F, respectively, on "energy transparency," which helped push toward the bottom of the pack. Of course, both companies are notoriously secretive about almost everything.

Some commenters took Greenpeace to task, suggesting that the organization is singling out Apple solely to generate attention. "Act tactfully as an organization and acknowledge your mistake. I would have far more respect for an organization that did that instead of sticking to their story just so they could keep the world's most recognizable brand front and center in their campaign," wrote one commenter.

Digital citizens of Earth
Other parts of the cloud chose to embrace Greenpeace -- or at least some of its ideas. Months after Greenpeace targeted Facebook for its data center pollution, the two outfits announced a collaboration in which Facebook will prioritize renewable energy usages and offer an application that lets consumers estimate their electricity usage.

Google's senior vice president for technical infrastructure, meanwhile, told the New York Times that Greenpeace's report was effective in drawing attention to the role of renewable energy:

We've put a significant time and resources into making Google as energy efficient as possible, using renewable energy, and investing in the sector. We welcome reports like this, as they bring additional attention to these important issues for the industry.

Amazon, on the other hand, said Greenpeace's estimates of its power use are off base. In addition, it argued that centralizing computing with services such Amazon Web Services results in higher utilization rates and thus better efficiency, a view supported by a number of researchers.

"Amazon Web Services believes that cloud computing is inherently more environmentally friendly than traditional computing," a representative said. "The cloud enables a combined smaller carbon footprint that significantly reduces overall consumption."

A representative from Microsoft, which also scored lower than its peers, noted that the company's modular data centers use half the energy than those from three years ago and only one percent of the water. "We engage with a wide range of environmental sustainability advocates, including Greenpeace, to inform our efforts to reduce our environmental impact," a representative said.

More broadly, Greenpeace argues the growing role tech companies play in the economy gives them more clout than you might think, particularly on energy at the regional and local level.

As Greenpeace's senior IT policy analyst Gary Cook told me:

IT companies have significant ability and standing to influence the energy policy debate. While that can actually be true for a lot of major companies and sectors, IT companies have a particularly important ability to do so because of their rapidly growing and concentrated energy footprint.

If companies like Apple or Microsoft showed up to tell state officials, the same state officials who have bent over backwards to lure these companies to their state, that they want a greener electricity supply, you can bet your bottom dollar this gets their attention.

Whether you condone sending people to rappel off buildings to protest corporations' reliance on coal is one thing. But responsible people should know where the electricity which powers their digital lifestyle comes from and consider the impact of our energy practices.

Greenpeace's current campaign taps into consumers' strong attachment to their tech providers to build up grassroots support for cleaner energy. It calls this group "environmentally aware digital citizens." After all, most people don't have strong opinions about their utility companies (well, at least until the lights go out), but frequently vote with their wallets when it comes to technology.

Web and consumer electronics companies do some amazing things and often innovate in how they do business, too. In the absence of bold action on energy from politicians, socially responsible tech companies should do the obvious: lead by example.